Brooklyn Museum: a surprisingly intimate pop art encounter

Who’d have thought that a mid-Saturday trip to the Brooklyn Museum’s Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968 exhibit would feel like a private showing?

It wasn’t just about the lack of crowds (we encountered no more than ten people throughout the exhibition). The show’s excellent layout plays a big role in creating an intimate atmosphere, gently guiding you through the five or so distinctly flavored rooms.

Far from simply seducing or overthrowing or corrupting (the origin of the exhibition’s title baffles me, except in its clear advertising value) – the show unveils what seems to be a previously unseen side of the post-was era. It’s billed as the first-ever all-woman survey of Pop art – striking and unbelievable given the caliber, diversity and originality of the works.

An interesting bit of trivia: “In the early 60s, the term “Pop” was generally applied to art that depicted mundane objects or banal commercial products, and whose imagery and style referenced advertising or graphic design.” (Art in America, September ’10 issue.) But walk through the show, and you witness a multifaceted review of an entire era – made all the more interesting by the unique feminine perspectives (and the sudden realization that just about all the pop art we’ve seen to date has been man-made.)

The first striking visuals are Marisol’s three riders in the first room: two on bikes, one on horseback (this is John Wayne). An ode to American pastimes, they’re at once humorous, thought-provoking and nostalgic. The last, likely, was not Marisol’s intent, but in our great age of emissions, the peaceful silhouettes make you long for simpler times and – in the midst of New York – the ease of the countryside.

Rosalyn Drexler’s’s two paintings are striking in their duality: the simplicity of the geometric lines and boiled-down figures on the one hand, and the difficult complexity, discomfort and irony on the other.

Rosalyn Drexler, “Love and Violence,” 1963.

Rosalyn Drexler, “Chubby Checker,” 1964.

You fel a bit nervous as soon as you lock eyes with the dancing man. His face, mask-like in its coloring and expression, is happy – but dangerously so. You get the feeling that there’s a bit of evil residing behind the grin. And then, seeing the canvas just next to it, your suspicions of irony and danger and confirmed. That piece, titled “Love and Violence,” has an erotic aura from afar but is predominantly violent up close, depicting scenes of domestic abuse. The momentary confusion – is it hate or passion? – creates a tension that’s hard to walk away from.

Judy Chicago. The Dinner Party.

On a somewhat lighter note, the next room invites you into Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. Less emotional, and in a way more intellectual and even educational (multiple boards cover the history of women from thousands of years ago to the present). Chicago weaves us through, first beneath the banners, then into the darkened atrium with place settings that bring O’Keefe-like imagery to 3-D life. The plates are set with vaguely food-like sculptures (is that lobster?) that turn out to be organic but not in our modern-day sense of the word.

The Dinner Party, continued.

Margaret Sanger’s place setting.

Emily Dickinson’s place setting.

If you stay in the dining room long enough, you can’t help imagining the conversations of these heroine’s ghosts. It’s eerie and beautiful – and speaks volumes through the silence.

From the darkness we’re led through to neon lights with less forceful messaging but strong visual stimulation value.

Idelle Weber, “Woman with Jump Rope,” circa 1964-65.

Chryssa, “Cents Sign Traveling from Broadway to Africa via Guadeloupe,” 1968.

The show manages to bounce you back and forth in time, pulling you closer with imagery we all recognize as our own, then distancing again with windows to the past. Example: While Martha Rosler’s 1966-72 Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Woman with Vacuum catapults us back to the era of the frustrated/obedient (Is that a forced smile or genuine joy at the “simple” life?) housewife, Mara McAfee’s 1963 Marvelous Modern Mechanical Men could easily be a live transmission from a Wall Street happy hour (just replace the ubiquitous cigarette with the CrackBerry and you’re in the present).

Another entertaining juxtaposition: in 1962, the year of her suicide, Andy Warhol immortalized (or did he objectify?) Marilyn Monroe, repeating her image over and over until it ran through the viewer’s mind like film. That very same year, Pauline Boty subjected heartthrob Belmondo to similar treatment in With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo. Here, a handsome man looks at us over the shoulder through dark glasses so we cannot see his eyes. Atop his white cowboy hat sits a red flower, blooming out of control. Above that, a series of hearts frame the top of the canvas. It seem that from these two images, we can extract some essential understanding of the very different types of characters and characteristics that make the two genders swoon.

The exhibit’s final room serves up a candy-store display of color and texture and size and diversity. In line with the rest of show, irony radiates from many of the works – yet the overall impression is far from over-the-top-feminist. The messages are subtle, the subjects intriguing, the overall tone not entirely gentle but also far from aggressive.

Marjorie Strider, “Triptych II (Beach Girl),” 1963

I have to admit I’m grateful to have had such a one-on-one experience with this unusual and rare collection of works. But I hope the Brooklyn Museum will find a way to keep the intimacy while reeling in more crowds: the exhibit is powerful, stunning and memorable in that way only great pop art can be. It really shouldn’t be missed.

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